Nations, like people, can suffer from Original Sin. Perhaps the best known example for the United States is our provision for slavery in the Constitution, which has so far festered into one Civil War and more than 200 years of racism. But the Second Amendment is another case. The thinking behind the Second Amendment reveals a paranoia about "Big Government" that has stained our history and still cripples us today.
After defeating monarchy, American founders remained so paranoid about central authority that they suffered 13 years of slapdash confederation. When it became obvious that a stronger central government was required, the notion still so rankled that the new Constitution included, amongst other anti-tyranny measures, its drastic "Doomsday" provision: If all else failed, the Second Amendment insured an armed polity capable of another violent revolution.
The possibility of children invading schools with automatic weapons did not occur, but neither did more obvious and horrific implications of this near-pathological distrust of central authority, including the Native American genocide.
Have you ever wondered what happened in the Canadian West during the 19th century while the American West was so bloody? I hadn't either. I assumed it was the same, sad story on both sides of the border. But there was no genocide in Canada. In "War Before Civilization," archaeologist Lawrence Keeley describes how "the plot, the scenery, the cast of characters, and the denouement were the same in both countries; but, the action and dialogue were very different." The reason: "The Canadian government got to the West first."
Keeping faith with the Founders' paranoia, Washington lagged well behind settlement, allowing clashes with the Indians to be aggravated by an anarchic hodgepodge of town, county, state, and territorial sheriffs, judges, militias, and vigilantes. Only when chaos was raging would federal authority arrive, guided by such dim bulbs as Phil "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" Sheridan to insure impartiality. Any survivors were exiled to hellish "reservations" that would be theirs "so long as grass grows" or competing white interests were expressed, whereupon the process began anew.
In Canada an organized central government was first on the scene with the Royal Mounties, who were not only police, but also magistrates who could enforce and interpret law on the spot. They made treaties that kept Indians on ancestral lands, however much reduced, and evenhandedly enforced the law as settlement pressures increased. The Indians resented the rip-off, certainly, but it was a modified rip-off, and strong central authority assured a peace worth keeping. In Canada, an unfair but historically inevitable process was managed with "a handful of interethnic killings and two ... comic opera uprisings" from 1820 to the closing of the frontier.
America's institutional disdain for central authority kept Washington squabbling over central banking while Western settlement ran riot. But the central bank was only one among dozens of other past and present responsibilities retarded by our reluctance to act in concert.
Out of scorn for federal leadership, Hoover did nothing to mitigate the Great Depression. Roosevelt's New Deal was doomed to minimal success, thanks to the same contempt expressed by Congress and the courts. During the civil rights struggle, federal authorities had to be dragged kicking and screaming to intervene and not just because Washington was run by racist white men. Those racist white men did not want federal authority interfering in a state's "internal" affairs.
Today, we have no national health insurance. Canada (not to elaborate on the rest of the Industrialized World) does. Our archaic hatred of Big Government has created instead a commercial health-care "industry," an obscenity in countries where health care is considered a universal human need.
Just by rattling their Big Government mojo doll, the various lobbies and their politicians stall national health, publicly-financed political campaigns, universal educational standards, a victorious "War on Poverty," uniform criminal justice. Yet, from Social Security to World War II to the moon landing, we've repeatedly proven that tyranny or failure is not the inevitable outcome a common effort.
Nonetheless, the United States remains too busy rooting out Waco conspiracy theories to take care of a great nation's business. Yes, government big or small is a potential source of great mischief. And the idea of the states as independent laboratories for policy and instruments for local control of uniquely local affairs makes sense. But 50 chefs can spoil a national soup, and no matter where you live, you get hungry.
We marvel that, in 1861, people like Robert E. Lee felt compelled to fight for Virginia rather than America. It's hard today to credit 50 varieties of "local nationalism," each worth dying and killing for, but that's how deep our "State's Rights" fetish can run. Further, from Western settlement to the Depression, by making common effort only in extremity, we all but ensure an unsatisfactory outcome. Then we can shrug at our self-fulfilled prophecy about the evils of Big Government as though all this debilitating paranoia had succeeded in producing "Small Government."
Obviously, the central question concerns quality, not quantity. And in the quest for "good" government, the Original Sin of post-Colonial paranoia needs to be left behind.
Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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